Thursday, July 28, 2016

1816: Year Without a Summer

The Mount Tambora caldera is 3.7 miles in diameter.
Two hundred and one years ago - April 1815 -  the volcanic mountain Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, blew its top in a massive, multi-day, explosive series of eruptions, blasting rocks, dust and ash as high as 20 miles. The mountain lost 1/3 of its height and an estimated 35-40 cubic miles of mountaintop. Sounds of the explosions were heard more than 1,000 miles away. As with all things measurable, there is a scale: the volcanic explosivity index (VEI), is similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, in that each number is ten times larger than the previous number. Mount St. Helens (1980) was a 5, with an explosive dispersal of an estimated 2/3 of a cubic mile of mountaintop. Mount Tambora (1815) has been retroactively designated a 7, making it the last 7 to occur in recorded history.  

Almost 10,000 miles away from Maynard and Stow - what's the point?  The answer is that across New England, the next year - 1816 - was known as "the year without a summer." High altitude dust and ash from Mount Tambora had spread across the entire globe, reflecting sunlight and causing global cooling. Worldwide, calamitously abnormal weather resulted in drought in some areas and massive flooding in others, crop failures, famine, political unrest, rampant cholera in Asia and typhus in Western Europe.

There were frosts every month. Rare warm spells were pushed out by blasts of cold air descending from Canada. In Salem, one day in late April saw a high of 74F, followed by a night's low of 21F. Snow flurries fell on Boston on June 6th, with snow blanketed the land to the north and west. People wore winter coats and mittens to Fourth of July events. The August 15th issue of the Middlesex Gazette, published in ConcordMA, stated that the weather was " cold as to render a fire [in the fireplace] not uncomfortable."

Cold-sensitive crops such as corn never came to harvest. The cost of animal feed tripled. By fall, farmers across New England were butchering their pigs, cows and oxen because they did not have feed to get through the winter. Horses starved. Keep in mind that this calamity predated railroads, so food was difficult to transport from less afflicted regions.

In 1817, spring came late. People feared that a repeat was due. From one account: "Many thought that the wild weather was evidence of God’s divine will. As a result, there was an upswing in religious revivals in 1816 and 1817. Others thought the perverse weather was the result of sunspots, or that cold air from Atlantic icebergs was blowing inland, or that New England’s deforestation was allowing cold winds to blow in from Canada. Many New England farmers, done in by a combination of depleted, rocky soil and merciless weather, decided to head west, which at the time meant western New YorkOhioIllinois, and Indiana. In the decade ending in 1820, more than 200,000 people migrated west from New England."

Locally, not so much. The populations of SudburyStowActon and Concord all increased by about ten percent from 1810 to 1820. (Maynard did not exist until 1871.)  Perhaps this near to the coast the effects had not been as severe as in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, by Lake Geneva, Lord Byron and his co-travelers were having a horrible summer - gloom, unrelenting rain and howling, lightning-ridden thunderstorms. Indoors most of the time, and bored, they challenged each other to create ghost stories. Byron's narrative poem "Darkness" contained the lines: " Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day/And men forgot their passions in the dread/Of this their desolation; and all hearts/Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light."

Byron's physician friend, John Polidori, was inspired to pen "The Vampyre," with a plot that was the first known to portray this bloodsucking monster as an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society. Mary Wollencraft Shelley began her work on what became her famous novel, "Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus."

For those in fear of a super-volcano apocalypse, know that the last major eruption off the Yellowstone Park hotspot, approximately 640,000 years ago, rated an 8 on the VEI scale. It ejected an estimated 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and ash. Doomsayers point out that Yellowstone is thought by some to have a history of erupting roughly every 500,000 years.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Assabet River Rail Trail 2016 Construction

Ceremonial shovels ready for groundbreaking event
See updates with photos, October...

At a ceremony in Maynard on Thursday, July 21, representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the towns of Acton and Maynard met to oversee and celebrate ground-breaking for the $6.7 million construction of 3.4 miles of the Assabet River Rail Trial (ARRT) in the two towns. Completion of this part of the trail is planned for spring of 2018.

MassDOT (Department of Transportation) Highway Administrator Tom Tinlin joined local legislators, Acton and Maynard town managers, project engineers and ARRT volunteers in front of an audience of about 80 to formally break ground on this project. State Senator Jamie Eldridge and State Representatives Kate Hogan and Cory Atkins spoke about the years of planning to get state funding.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge
Click on photos to enlarge
Town Managers Kevin Sweet (Maynard) and Roland Bartl (Acton) described how this project will make both towns friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists; both also noted that their towns are participating in the state's Complete Streets program. Roland pointed out that completing this northern end of the Assabet River Rail Trail leaves a gap between the two ends, and that all involved parties are committed to exploring means to close the gap, either along the original train route or alternatives.

Maynard Board of Selectmen Chairman Chris DiSilva welcomed the increased number of visitors the Trail will bring to Maynard businesses. Chris also recognized the long years of involvement by ARRT volunteers Thomas Kelleher and Duncan Power. Janet Adachi, Vice Chair of the Acton Board of Selectmen acknowledged all towns' employees and former employees who had worked to bring this project to fruition, also the people of design and engineering companies, such as Rebecca Williamson of Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., who have spent years on the details.

ARRT President Thomas Kelleher 
The contractor for this multi-year project is D'Allessandro Corp., a Massachusetts-based company with lots of experience in road, sidewalk, park and water management projects. This expertise will stand them in good stead for constructing the trail through the middle of Maynard as it crosses many roads: Route 117, Sudbury Street, Main Street, Florida Road, Summer Street, Acton Street, Concord Street and Acton Street again just before entering Acton.

A construction timeline has been set. Much of the work - especially through downtown Maynard - will be completed in 2016. Two bridges and a boardwalk spanning a wetlands area in Acton will be completed in 2017, as will final paving. Late 2017 to early 2018 will see installation of fences, benches, signage and landscaping, including the planting of hundreds of trees.

CAT 521B with tree felling attachment on boom (red). Operator positions
arm to grab tree - the five foot diameter blade cuts through in a couple of
seconds - and then the tree is laid down before the CAT moves on. As of
July 25th the CAT has finished Maynard and continues in Acton.
Work in earnest has already begun. Trail sections are being blocked off with fencing and signs. Already, large trees that had grown next to and in some places over the abandoned rails were cut to create an eighteen foot wide swath from Summer to Concord Streets in Maynard. The tree cutting process was quite a sight, as a Caterpillar CAT521B with a tree felling head weighs in at a tad under 70,000 pounds and can cut trees up to 22 inches in diameter in a few seconds. Each cut tree was carefully laid on it side, and the CAT moved on. The next day, different equipment dragged all the trees to the north end, to be stuffed into a super-sized wood chipper. Stumps to be dealt with later. 

In addition to the trail being closed, much of the parking along the affected parts of High Street, Main Street, Railroad Street, and the parking lots behind the Post Office, Gruber Bros, CVS, Subway, The Outdoor Store and China Ruby is being temporarily blocked off. [October update: The Attic, a second hand store in the Dunn Oil building, behind The Outdoor Store, went out of business.]

At the Farmers' Market location, the trees and hedge between the parking lot and Main Street are gone, as are trees in the park by the footbridge.   

Among permanent changes planned for Maynard: Ice House Landing, off Winter Street, will have a paved parking lot, some parking will be lost behind the Post Office and from the town lot behind CVS and the Outdoor Store. Part of Maplebrook Park (corner Summer and Maple) will be sacrificed to the trail. In 2017 the six foot wide wooden footbridge over the Assabet River will be replaced by a wood-planked, steel truss bridge 62 feet long and 16 feet (!) wide. This is so people will be able to pause on the bridge to admire the river without hindering traffic. An idea - with a bit of help from the Maynard Community Gardeners this could become Maynard's own Bridge of Flowers.

Speakers prepare to toss ceremonial first shovelfuls of dirt
In Acton, south-to-north, the trail starts on an existing causeway that traverses wetlands. It will then pass along the front of the Paper Store office building (between it and Route 27) rather than behind the building, as that option would have required a lengthy boardwalk over wetlands. Farther north, a small parking lot will be added at the end of Sylvia Street. A new 70 x 16 foot bridge will span Fort Pond Brook. The trail, with its own parking area, will exit onto Maple Street adjacent to the south side of the train station. The station will have new bicycle parking facilities in addition to what already exists on the north side.

Existing, unplanked bridge over Fort Pond Brook

Many people want to know how safe rail trails are for bicycling with young children. The Acton section will be flat and cross no roads. It will, however, cross two driveways bracketing the Paper Store office building. In Maynard, the trail will cross eight roads, some very busy, before terminating at White Pond Road, on the Maynard:Stow border. There is one short but steep hill which may be a bit much for young children unless they get off their bikes and walk. Southbound, after crossing Summer Street, there is a downhill to the parking lot behind The Outdoor Store. There is a gradual uphill parallel to Railroad Street. The rest is flat or near-flat.

As for amenities, there will be no public restroom facilities or water fountains anywhere along the trail. Four kiosks with maps and other information will be erected at key points. There will be 'distance travelled' markers every half-mile. Benches and bike racks will be installed. Signage will describe historic sites adjacent to the trail. Because the trail's path goes through the center of Maynard there will be easy access to restaurants and outdoor seating cafes (with bathrooms), convenience stores, and Ray & Sons Cyclery. A detour to the far side of Maynard's mill pond will bring riders to the outdoor beer garden of Battle Road Brewery & Brewpub.

Speakers and some of the attendees
The south end terminates at an entrance to the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, which offers 15 miles of trails, half open to bicycling ( ARNWR has parking lots near the north and south entrances. At the south end of the rail trail walkers and cyclists are permitted to continue two miles west on the unpaved, privately owned "Track Road," which ends at Sudbury Road, Stow. This is quite near to Stow Town Beach on Lake Boon, but unfortunately Stow does not sell day passes.

About the north end: an oft-asked question is whether the Acton end of ARRT, at the train station, will ever link to the Bruce Freeman Trail, currently being extended south through the east edge of Acton, toward West Concord, with a north terminus in Lowell. There is no inactive rail right-of-way between the two, and thus no good option for an off streets connection. One possibility would be to create a three mile long marked bicycle lane on School Street and Laws Brook Road.    

Business end of the woodchipper. Click on photos to enlarge.
This project, when complete, will add 3.4 miles at the north end to the 5.8 miles completed years ago at the south end, in Hudson and Marlborough. Connecting the two along the route of the original railroad would cover 3.2 miles and cross the Assabet River twice. Any rail trail connection, this way or other, is years away. Experienced road cyclists can connect the ends by heading north on White Pond Road, then west and south on Route 62 (distance 5.4 miles), but this route is too heavily trafficked for inexperienced riders or children. Walkers and off-road cyclists can navigate a route that hews closer to the original by traveling on Track Road (unpaved) to Sudbury Road, and from there on roads to the Hudson end, on Route 62.      

Thomas Tinlin, MassDOT
Jamie Eldridge, State Senator
Kate Hogan, State Representative
Cory Atkins, State Representative
Kevin Sweet, Maynard Town Manager
Chris DiSilva, Chairman, Maynard Board of Selectmen
Roland Bartl, Acton Town Planner
Janet Adachi, Vice Chair, Acton Board of Selectmen
Thomas Kelleher, President, ARRT

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Polyphemus Moth Photograph

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) photographed resting on grass during daytime. Shortly after this photo was taken
the moth moved its wings to an upright position. The underside does not show the eye spots, so resembles a dead leaf.  
This specimen of Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was spotted resting on grass in the shadow of a building, morning of July 16, 2016, in a town in eastern Massachusetts, USA. The name, "Polyphemus" is taken from Greek mythology - being the name of the Cyclops who had captured Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his fellow sailors in the journey home from the war against the the city-state of Troy (the Trojan War). Odysseus blinds Polyphemus and his men escape.

Click on photo to enlarge.
Polyphemus, the moth, is a species in the Family Saturniidae, Sub-family Saturniinae, also known as Giant Silkworm Moths. Most of these have eye spots on lower wings and may also have eye spots on upper wings. In the U.S. the best known Saturniinae moth is the Luna moth, pale green in color with wing eye spots and tails extending from the bottoms of the lower wings.

All Saturniidae lack functional mouths and digestive systems. Instead, they live as winged adults for only 7-10 days. During this time the males seek out the females for mating. Each adult mates only one time. The females then lay a few eggs at a time to the underside of a leaf, in this way scattering 50-200 eggs across many sites.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Water Chestnut: Invasive Aquatic Plant

Water chestnut plant at surface, rooted to bottom. 
Often, the root supports multiple rosettes, each  
bearing several nuts. The plant is an annual, so it 
does not regrow from the same root the 
next year. Rosettes are 6-12 inches across.
Water chestnut, an invasive water plant, has a nature akin to lily pads on steroids, growing rapidly in nutrient-rich fresh water ponds, lakes and slow-flowing rivers. Unchecked, it will almost completely cover water surfaces, making boating, swimming and fishing impossible. The dense floating mat of overlapping leaves also blocks sunlight penetration, causing oxygen deprivation lethal to fish and other animal life. In addition to this ecological horror story, the large, sharply pointed seeds, which mature in early August, fall to the bottom, and can cause painful wounds if stepped on.

This species, Trapa natans, is not to be confused with the edible water chestnut common to Chinese cuisine. The plant was initially brought to the Harvard University Botanic Garden, possibly from southeastern Europe or western Asia. In the 1870s staff gardener Louis Guerineau took it upon himself to throw seeds into Fresh Pond and other Cambridge waterways. This came to the attention of botanist George E. Davenport, who decided to bring seeds and live plants to his friend Minor Pratt, in Concord. He and Pratt seeded a pond near the Sudbury River, and he suspected Pratt conducted additional distributions. Thus, Cambridge was point zero and Concord the plus one. Current distribution ranges from Canada to Maryland, and westward into New York and Pennsylvania.
Click on any photo to enlarge

As early as 1879 there was a concern voiced by botanist Charles S. Sargent, Director of Boston's Arnold Arboretum, that this non-native species threatened to become a nuisance, based on dense growths reported in Cambridge. Davenport fessed up in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 6: "I have several times had plants of Trapa natans that were collected in the vicinity of Boston, during the present year, brought to me for identification, and I have entertained no doubt as to the manner of its introduction into waters outside Cambridge Botanic Garden. But that so fine a plant as this, with its handsome leafy rosettes and edible nuts, which would, if common, be as attractive to boys as hickory nuts now are, can ever become a 'nuisance' I can scarcely believe."

This past Saturday a doughty band of twelve volunteers, organized by OARS (Organization for the Assabet Sudbury & Concord Rivers), launched canoes onto the Assabet River in Maynard, upstream from the dam next to Powdermill Road. What this involved was paddling upstream about one-quarter mile. Two occupants per canoe would steer into an area with plants to pull them by hand, each yank resulting in a dripping, muddy mess dropped into laundry baskets in the middle of the canoe. The laden canoes would be paddled back to the launch site, the baskets lugged ashore to a compost pile, the canoes bailed out, the process repeated. Messy, messy, messy! 

Pile of water chestnut plants, to be hauled away to landfill. 
Years of these visits, conducted every July before the nuts mature and fall to the bottom, have done a great job of eradicating the plants from long stretches of the Assabet River and reducing density in the still impacted parts. Surveillance visits are repeated each year, because while most seeds sprout next spring, some are still viable as much as 8-10 years later.     

 To get an idea of how bad it can get, Vermont spends over half a million dollars a year hiring companies with mechanical harvesters to manage the worst parts of Lake Champlain, plus paying dozens of people to do hand-pulling in less-infested waters on the big lake and elsewhere. The 2013 report described 1,200 tons collected by the harvesters and more than 21 tons by hand.

This posting repeats in part a column that was in the Beacon-Villager newspaper (serving Maynard and Stow, Massachusetts) in July 2015.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ginger Beer

Three ginger beer brands available in most liquor stores 
Ginger, the plant, was originally cultivated in India, then dispersed widely across tropical climates. The spice – dried ground ginger root – was an important part of the spice trade from the Far East to the Roman Empire and remained so through to the founding of European empires and countries, and to European colonies in Africa and the Americas. Today, worldwide production is on the order of two million tons of fresh ginger per year, mostly from India, China, Nepal and Indonesia. Some of that is used to make ginger beer.

Beer, centuries ago, was a broader term than we think of now. Basically, a mix of a carbohydrate source, a fermenting agent and flavoring agents yields a product of about five percent alcohol and a range of claims about drinkability. In time, Europe narrowed the classic ingredients to water, malted barley and hops. Other cultures used rice or corn or wheat for the fermentable ingredient and other plant ingredients for flavor and as preservatives. (In general, the bitter and astringent ingredients are plant chemical compounds known as polyphenols, with preservative properties.)   

Ginger beer started out as an alcohol-containing beverage made from sugar, ginger, and a fermenting agent that combined yeast and bacteria - confusingly known as "ginger beer plant." This created a home-brew or commercial product with a low level of carbonation and a cloudy appearance. Crabbie's Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer is a close approximation, albeit filtered and pasteurized, and there are other, harder to find brands.

Low alcohol varieties got a big boost during Prohibition, as beverages with less than 0.5% alcohol were still legal. Breweries could stay in business by selling "near beer." Ginger beer adapted down the same path, but also spun off soda-like offspring - golden ginger ale, and also a milder product out of Canada that became Canada Dry Ginger Ale. All these by-pass the fermentation process, instead combining carbonated water with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, ginger extract, sometimes artificial flavors, citric acid and caramel for color.

Much as the artisanal beer movement of the 21st century has brought on a proliferation of brands, same for non-alcoholic ginger beer. Website searches will find reviews of scores of brands. Most of these are hard to find in Maynard or Stow. Liquor stores tend to carry only one or two brands, most likely Goslings, Barritts, Saranac or Reed's. The Merai Liquor store at 129 Main Street (near dry cleaners) carries Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer, at $7.00 for four 6.8 oz bottles. Buy this if you want your Moscow Mule to have a real ginger kick.

Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer is expensive, but a great mixer for Moscow Mule
I love Fever-Tree for mixed drinks. My personal preference among the lower cost brands is Goslings. I find Barritts and Saranac closer to being golden ginger ales. Reed's 'Jamaican Style' Ginger Beer follows the Jamaican ginger beer formula, which calls for adding spices, including cayenne. These products have a pronounced ginger/spice 'bite' that timewise lags a second or two behind the sweetness of the sugar. Reed's veers further from the traditional, in that the product contains significant amounts of pineapple juice, in addition to using honey and sugar for sweetness, and lemon and lime juices for citric notes. People either love it (not me) or hate it (me).         

Locally, the Maydale Bottling Co. of Maynard, Massachusetts, located on Glendale Street (hence “Maydale”) was renowned for its golden ginger ale from its founding in 1899 until its formulas and customer lists were sold to Chelmsford Ginger Ale Company in the 1960s. Chelmsford, like Maydale, was a regional company with sales across eastern Massachusetts. Chelmsford was bought by Canada Dry, in turn acquired by Schweppes, which discontinued Chelmsford Golden Ginger Ale. The brand name was sold to Polar Beverages, Worcester, which now makes Chelmsford Golden Ginger Ale for Market Basket supermarkets, in addition to Polar Golden Ginger Ale for other stores. And for final confusion, in the United States, Polar makes Goslings Ginger Beer for Gosling's and Schweppes makes a highly rated ginger beer.

Whether the apostrophe? Reed's, Crabbie's and Stone's use the possessive, Barritts and Goslings, not. Goslings is actually a bit schizoid on the topic, as the apostrophe does appear on their older and more well known Bermuda rum products. The family reached Bermuda in 1806 and is still family owned - seventh going on eighth generation.    

How to ruin a perfectly good ginger beer: Goslings is a cloudy variety, achieved artificially by adding gum ingredients. If an unrefrigerated can's contents are vigorously poured into a tall glass, a very, very, long-lasting foamy head is formed. You don’t want to try to drink your way through this because all of the bitter, astringent, ginger compounds are in the foam, while all the balancing sweetness is in the liquid at the bottom. Pour slow and pour cold.

Popular mixed drinks:
Dark and Stormy: dark rum carefully poured atop ginger beer, with wedge of lime
Moscow Mule: vodka and ginger beer, wedge of lime, traditionally served in a copper cup
Kentucky Mule: bourbon and ginger beer with lemon wedge and fresh mint leaves
Mexican Mule: tequila, salt on the rim of the glass
....and the list goes on. Sweetened lime juice works in place of or in addition to fresh lime.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Juggling Fire

Click on any photo to enlarge
The occasion was in celebration of our daughter's wedding. She and her husband are both veterans of Burning Man festivals (look it up), and so have acquaintances who are fire performers. After the wedding reception there was a next-night 'Burner' reception for family and friends. There were fiery hula-hoops, fans, staffs and poi. That last prop name refers to a pair of devices with a handle at one end attached by a length of chain to a fiery ball. These are swung about the body with great dexterity, to great effect. (Look it up on YouTube.)

There were no examples of fiery jump rope or kerosene-soaked balls that are juggled bare-handed. (Yes, those are real props.)  

Not for the reception, but after, in the wedded couple's honor I decided to resurrect my fire juggling skills from way, way back when I was a Boston-area street performer in the 1970s.

This involved several weeks of practice unlit, followed by an afternoon when I broke out the kerosene and matches. I was immediately reminded that juggling is a wee bit harder when the whooshing sound and the flashes of heat as the lit end spins in toward ones face are added to the act. However, other than a few scorch marks in the grass from dropped torches, no harm.

Photos were sent to be added to the wedding album. Now I have to decide whether to re-retire this skill or continue practicing. A few tips I was reminded of: Practice with one lit before lighting up all three. Wear cotton - it's a lot less flammable than synthetic fibers. Use only approved fuels. Shake excess liquid off the wicks before lighting up. Have a damp towel handy. If you grab the hot end by mistake, let go fast.

For jugglers who prefer the idea of sharp objects over fire there are companies that manufacture props that appear to be sharp but actually have blunted edges. Pricier props have a 'sharp' side of the blade with a visible bevel, but the actual edge is blunt. For show, a performer could use a real knife or ax to cut an apple in half, then switch to the props for the juggling part of the act.

One company, Three Fingers Juggling, LLC, sells a double-bladed axe with a fire wick. To me, that feels a bit over the top - if it is dark enough for the fire to be impressive then the axe blades won't be that visible. And at 22 ounces each, a LOT heavier than the standard 10 oz torch. One problem with these heavy props is that even a blunt edge can cause quite a bruise if a hit taken on head, shoulder or arm.

Oh, and Ian Stewart, California, juggles chain saws, and for an encore, he has a wick on the end of one and sets it on fire. FLAMING CHAINSAWS!